Forget About Spying

There’s something about the obsession of the progressive left on “spying” that bothers me. Sure, the mass surveillance that’s going on of citizens by their governments should be opposed, even though deep down – or not so deep down – I think we’ve gone Get_Smartway past the possibility of stopping it. And more power to the activists and whistle-blowers and journalists who have exposed it. Because even if, per above, we never manage to stop governments and corporations from doing it, it’s crucial that we’re kept up to date about where and how and why they’re doing it. At least then, the cleverest among us can come up with work-arounds. No, what bothers me is the priority this issue seems to get when I can’t help feel it should be much lower down the list than, say, global inequality, war, climate change (not necessarily in that order). I’ve had this argument, uh, discussion with my partner, who disagrees. He sees the “surveillance state” as a super important issue because of the danger of dictatorship that comes with the ability to know what everyone is doing, not to mention the handing over to the government and corporates (and other surveillors) the ability to covertly blackmail people who haven’t done anything wrong (maybe they have some compromising pix on their phone, or had an affair or an abortion or a facelift).

There are some tests I like to run on political issues before I get involved: will it challenge/undermine the status quo: i.e. will it challenge capitalism, will it challenge racism, will it challenge the patriarchy (which, yeah, it’s old but I still think it (a) exists and (b) is a huge problem), will it challenge the power structures in society? I suppose, if I’m honest, I don’t really think protesting mass surveillance does that. I don’t think capitalism, the military industrial complex, male hegemony, etc., is too bothered by all of this, despite the noise they make. I could be wrong. I could so very well be completely wrong. After all, the way the U.S. has gone after the journalists and the whistle-blowers suggests its leadership (aka corporate America) feels very threatened. Which in turns suggests it does challenge the status quo.

Yes, I think this over reaction to Snowden, to Assange, to Chelsea Manning (slightly different, but related) is the best piece of evidence suggesting I am indeed wrong about this. And that the surveillance state should, perhaps, be at the very top of the agenda.

Clearly, my position (“being vaguely bothered”) isn’t too well thought out, but I can’t help see this as a middle-class activist issue (a category I myself am in). But if our government said it was pulling out of the Five Eyes spy group right now, was dismantling all of its spying infrastructure and programmes – and if it actually did this – what difference would it make to people who are poor? To women who don’t have reproductive rights? To polluted waterways, endangered species, global warming? I don’t think it would make the teeniest tiniest little bit of difference.

Which doesn’t really counter my partner’s argument about the risks of mass surveillance. On the other hand, there have been many dictatorships that pulled it off quite well without all this technology. You just need to get everyone to become an informant on everyone else. You don’t need access to the population’s text messages and locations and emails. Dictatorship is always a risk, with or without mass surveillance. That, of course raises another question: Has the rise of mass surveillance increased the risk? I think the answer to that remains open.

What’s more, IMHO, all the lefties who are all burned up about mass surveillance should take another look at what difference it would really make if they got their way on this one issue. Right now. To (most) people’s lives. My answer: none.

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